Would you give a thief direct access to your checking account? No? You may be doing that, by regularly using your debit card. Debit cards may look identical to credit cards, but there's one key difference. With credit cards, users who spot fraudulent charges on their bill can simply decline the charges, and not pay the bill. On the other hand, debit cards draw money directly from your checking account, rather than from an intermediary, such as a credit card company. Because of that, even clear-cut cases of fraud, where victims are protected from liability by consumer protection laws, can cause significant hardship, says Frank Abagnale, a secure-document consultant in Washington, D.C. He cites the example of the The TJX Companies Inc.'s T.J. Maxx data breach, that exposed the payment information of thousands of customers, in 2007. The incident resulted in $150 million in fraud losses, much pulled directly from customers' bank accounts. While credit card users got their accounts straightened out, and new cards in the mail within a few days, the case created major problems for debit card holders, who waited an average of two to three months to get reimbursed, Abagnale says. While debit card fraud is always a possibility, being careful where you use it can help keep your checking account balance out of the hands of criminals.
Skimming ATMs. The idea outdoor ATMs are among the most dangerous places to use a debit card seems a little bit absurd. Some ATMs present a perfect opportunity for thieves to skim users' debit cards, says Chris McGoey, a security consultant based in Los Angeles. Skimming is the practice of capturing a bank customer's card information by running it through a machine that reads the card's magnetic strip. Those machines are often placed over the real card slots at ATMs and other card terminals. "Any transaction you do outdoors, at an open ATM, is going to be higher risk exposure," McGoey says. "If the public has access to it, someone has the ability to add skimming devices to it, position cameras on it, and position themselves in a way where they could surveil it." He says you're better off using an ATM inside a retail outlet, or other high-trafficked, well-lit place. Julie McNelley, senior analyst for Aite Group LLC, a Boston-based financial services research firm, says even the card terminals card users must swipe to get into ATM vestibules, are used as a skimming site by criminals. You can spot ATM skimmers by checking for ATM components that look beat-up or askew, she says. Stealing PINs at gas stations. Gas stations are another danger zone for debit card use. "You go to a gas station, stick your debit card in there, and you swipe it through a machine," Abagnale says. "I'm sitting across the street with a laptop and an antenna. "I put a skimmer in there, and I'm picking up all the information. "Before you even get home, I've debited your account."